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Junior Fans Enter Off Week With Fingers Crossed

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, March 8 2011

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is off to a fast start. NASCAR fans are wondering if it is another false start. (Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Mike Harris | Senior Writer

After years of failed expectations and disappointment, it looks like Dale Earnhardt Jr. may have found the catalyst he has been looking for in Steve Letarte.

The latest crew chief for NASCAR’s favorite struggling driver has seemingly given Earnhardt something he has lacked for at least three seasons – confidence.

For those who follow and root for Earnhardt, it has been tough to watch him constantly down in the dumps and waiting without much hope for better things to come.

Anybody who knows anything about NASCAR and, in particular, the Sprint Cup series, was certain that Junior’s move to the elite Hendrick Motorsports team in 2008 would end his downward spiral.

But, despite Rick Hendrick’s hands-on approach with Earnhardt, trying to give him every chance of succeeding, the combination has produced one win and one post-season appearance in three seasons.

But the results of the first three races of 2010 have raised the hopes of both Earnhardt and his legion of fans.

He began the Cup season by winning the pole for the Daytona 500. But a crash in practice forced

Dale Earnhardt Jr. seems to have hooked up with the guy who can make him fast again, crew chief Steve Letarte. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Earnhardt to start from the back and a crash in the race relegated him to a 24th-place finish.

Since then, though, he has finished 10th at Phoenix and eighth on Sunday at Las Vegas, placing Earnhardt 10th in the points as the Cup season pauses for an off week before heading to Bristol.

It’s the first time that Earnhardt has put together two top-10 finishes since the middle of last season at Loudon (eighth) and Daytona (fourth).

It’s not exactly a charge to the front, but watching Earnhardt being interviewed, one can see a change in attitude – a newfound hope. And you can hear it clearly in his voice.

A lot of that is the result of his pairing with Letarte, who was Jeff Gordon’s crew chief the last few years. The move by Hendrick was part of wholesale changes to three of his four Cup teams. All of them have worked pretty well, but this one appears to be have made the biggest impact.

“We’re just doing what we’re supposed to do, I reckon,’’ Earnhardt said after the Las Vegas race. “We didn’t have too bad a car in practice and I just didn’t nail it in qualifying. I didn’t drive good. I thought guys were running on the top and that maybe I needed to run there in qualifying and so I ran there and that wasn’t the thing to do.

“But I guess the best thing that we did all day long was the adjustments. I kept telling Stevie what I thought I needed and what the car felt like it was doing wrong and he was hitting on it every time. We were kind of working together on some ideas and we hit on one idea that was really good and it really woke the car up.

“We decided to take four (tires) at the end and I’ll back Stevie’s call there. It might have cost us a spot in hindsight, but we just need to run good and get good finishes under our belt and keep their confidence and keep my confidence up. Mid-way through the race was the first time in a long time I actually was feeling like I could beat them guys, you know? That I was around. It gave me a lot of confidence today; we just need to keep doing that.”

We’ve heard this tune before after the occasional decent finish, but this time it appears there is more

Is Dale Earnhardt Jr. dressed for success? (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images for NASCAR)

than desperation behind the words.

“It’s fun in this hauler, man,’’ Earnhardt said. “When you’re running good, everything is easier to do. But I really enjoy brainstorming with Steve and I think having worked with him, I’ve become better at helping him just in a short period of time. But it’s fun to brainstorm with and work with him and I just want to do good.

“Failure at this point is completely unacceptable and I’ve got to put it all out on the line and do everything I can to make this work,’’ Junior added.

Some critics have insisted that the advent of NASCAR’s big, heavy Car of Tomorrow has been Earnhardt’s downfall. But he insists he’s going to make this latest team work, whatever the equipment.

“If it don’t work with (Letarte), I got nowhere else to go,’’ Earnhardt said. “I got no other options, really other than just to race myself into oblivion with my own team and Tony (Eury) Jr. and them guys.

“But I want this to work. I want to be in a CoT the rest of my career as long as I can and I want to be successful and so I’m just trying to work hard man. We’re getting better. It feels like it’s working.

“It’s a fun team; a great group of guys,’’ Junior added. “I’m proud to be a part of it and hope I can keep working well and keep doing well.”

NASCAR is off to a pretty good start this season, with interesting races and improved ticket sales and tv ratings. Continuing success on the racetrack by Dale Earnhardt Jr. would be another big boost for the stock car sport.

– Mike Harris can be reached at mharris@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, March 8 2011


  • Overra88ted says:

    The clock is ticking for JR. people with delusions like MayBeth think sponsoeship $$$ = driving talent. Even Jr. now realizes time has past him by, and has now said he has no where else to go after next year. MaryBeth needs to get her head out of her you know where, Dale Jr. all but admitted that starting his own team he’d be riding in circles mid-pack without any excuses.

    • Bob Earnhardt says:

      Your screen name gives you away. You couldn’t be objective with Jr if you tried. In case you didn’t notice, everyone’s “clock is ticking.” Never have heard him say “time has passed him by.” Has time passed these two drivers, 1)Jeff Gordon, age 40, born 8/4/1971; 2) Jimmie Johnson, age 35, born 9/17/1975. I don’t think so. In a recent interview, Jr said he could go to JR Motorsports but he didn’t want to do that. He will remain with Rick Hendrick as long as he will have him. A lot of Jr’s problems have centered around his level of confidence in himself, his car set up and his crew chief. When he left DEI he left his comfort zone, fathers company and family, except for Tony Jr. Steve Letarte is on the road to rebuilding his confidence and time will tell if he is able to do that. Despite what you may say, the kid can drive a race car and still win. By the way, I beg to differ, but driving talent and the results=sponsorship dollars. Jr’s past winnings support that. I’m waiting to see how all this works out, but I will tell you I will truly enjoy seeing those like you eat your hat when he is back to finishing races strong.. All just my opinion.

  • TR69 says:

    The biggest difference is the chemistry between Letarte and Jr. Last year Jr had to drive his butt of to get in the top 20. Now its easy again because Letarte knows how to adjust the car on the fly. Lance was smart enough to make the changes but, he didn’t speak Jr’s language.Stevie does.

  • Marybeth says:

    I said last week that on about lap 165 that when Jr. said to Steve that he was too loose on the start, & that Steve fixed it. Lance could not fix his car. This week Steve fixed it on lap 57, a much shorter amount of time to fix it. This is going the right direction. Jr. raced his way into the top ten from starts in the 30s for 2 weeks in a row. No one can say that he lucked into it or that Nascar gave him breaks. He raced his way up front! This is why I have said all along that he hasn’t forgotten how to drive! That is why I have been so upset that Rick didn’t use some of the money Jr. is bringing in to hire Addington or someone like him as his cc.
    After JG spun out in this afternoon’s practice, when SPEED interviewed him, he said that that he has all new cars this year. Jr. had a new car for Daytona and it was wrecked. So all they could get for him was the car JG drove at Talladega last year. The HMS publicity department said in their race previews for Jr. that the car Jr. drove in Phoenix was the latest driven by JG last year in Phoenix. The car Jr. has this weekend in LV was last driven by JG in Dover last fall.
    Jr. is getting JG’s leftovers, including cc. This swap was all about making JG better, Jr. is just incidental. I also believe that since Jr. is bringing in the most money and JG only has an AARP charity, & the money Jr. is bringing in is going to fund JG’s new cars & cc. I will still be happier next year when he is back in the #8 car or at Gibbs.

  • Kevin says:

    I am a huge Jr fan, but lets not forget the optimism that we had when Jr first came to Hendrick and made the chase. Last year he was top 8 in points through the spring Bristol race. So as happy as I am to see him doing well and to have a bounce in his step and a smile on his face, I’m going to reserve judgement. I want for everything to work out for Jr & Letarte, and I’ll enjoy the ride for as long as it lasts, but I’ll not get my hopes up until he starts running and winning like he used to back in the day.